Travel Report: War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
I’m unlikely to ever forget our visit to Siem Reap’s so-called War Remnant Museum. Not, I should point out, for the right reasons. It had all sounded so promising on paper. Come, said the online blurb, to “a place of healing for bodies, hearts and minds”. To an exhibit that is “more than a museum”. As a result, Sladja and I headed out there one January afternoon with something of a steely resolve.
We were expecting to experience a moving exhibit on Cambodia’s troubled history. To hear first hand stories and grieve for the many victims of war and genocide. I was hoping, perhaps, for tales of heroism and recovery, maybe even some lessons learned and a bit of redemption. These were the thoughts that filled my mind as our tuk tuk turned off the main road down a dusty country track.
When we arrived at the museum entrance I was somewhat confused. Jumping out of our tuk tuk, we found ourselves at the edge of a large, grubby field. There was barely anyone around, jus a lone Khmer man stationed at a shed of a ticket office. “$5 per person” he mumbled. Exchanging uncertain glances with Sladja, I handed the money over and we walked inside.
With no leaflet, audio guide or museum staff of any description, we simply followed the handmade wooden signs around the complex. Interestingly, a tatty info board revealed that the museum stands on the site of a former Vietnamese military camp.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia in order to remove Pol Pot from power. Part of this offensive included the shelling of various Khmer Rouge units based around The Angkor Temples. Apparently, the rusting bits of artillery housed in the fields are from those attacks.
There wasn’t all that much. We could see the remains of a tank and a couple of anti aircraft guns. Elsewhere, I came across a rusty, unlabelled bicycle. No indication whatsoever of its relevance. Bizarre.
The first thing that struck me was how spectacularly uncared for the entire complex was. The grass, plants and flowers in the fields were utterly scorched. Moreover, there was litter everywhere, including tossed plastic bottles and candy bar wrappers.
Working our way around the site on the main path, we ducked into the various exhibits, which are little more than makeshift shacks. One showcased a number of military uniforms from the 1970s, another a collection of projectile shells. It was depressing because a) it got me thinking about the futility of war and b) whoever had made this exhibit clearly spent no longer than five minutes putting it together.
What to See & Do, Siem Reap.
Another little hut was home to a dozen helmets laid out across some wooden planks. Again there was no information about their history. One of the helmets made me think of Stanley Kubrick’s chilling war movie Full Metal Jacket and that Sladja and I were about to embark on a Kubrick marathon.
A further shack contained a collage of tatty, faded photographs. No labels, no info, nada. Among the many sad images, I spied a gaggle of Khmer child soldiers grimacing at the camera. Then a shot of Princess Diana in Cambodia helping to clear landmines. Elsewhere, there were pictures of various amputees in a hospital, their faces twisted in agony as doctors and nurses loomed over them.
In the far corner of the compound, we came across a modest memorial to a mass grave found here in the mid 1990s. It contains the remains of around 210 people executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. On the one hand, you can’t help but feel moved. On the other, surely the museum curators could have done a bit more with it.
The most interesting part of the museum is the arms store. Outside, a somewhat nonsensical sign states: “This store make your eye change. And emotion because of that evidence are was collect from the reals battlefield”.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
Inside, at least, there’s plenty of information on the landmines, shells, grenades and guns on display. It’s a sizeable and sobering collection which, I’d say, just about justifies the entrance fee all by itself. It was at this point that our clearly bored tuk tuk driver joined us and began providing commentary on some of the weapons in broken English.
He certainly wasn’t shy in getting his hands on the guns. In fact, he hauled several directly off the wall before giving me impromptu demos on how they worked. He talked very matter-of-factly about the damage they inflicted on people, emitting a few nervous chuckles and a weary shake of the head. It was sad and awkward, neither of us knew what to say.
Furthermore, he absolutely insisted I hold one, something I wasn’t particularly comfortable with. “It’s heavy” was all I could manage when he probed me for some kind of response. Perhaps the only time I have ever held a gun, I can’t think of another.
Finally, we learned that the site was also cleared of landmines at some point in the early 2000s. In true War Remnant Museum style though, further information remained elusive. So what conclusions can I draw from my visit to the War Remnant Museum? While overall the experience left me cold, I still found it interesting, not to mention a touch macabre. Thus I would (just about) recommend it for a visit, so long as you know what it is you’re getting for your $5.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
There are very few reviews of WRM online, inspiring me to include it in our Siem Reap files. My first impression was that the complex had opened say thirty years ago and fallen on hard times. But in one online piece, I read that it began just a few years ago in cooperation with The Cambodian Army. If this is true, it makes the general state of the place unforgivable.
Interested in learning more about Cambodia’s troubled history? Check out my articles on:
APOPO Humanitarian Demining, Siem Reap.
Cambodia Landmine Museum, Siem Reap.
Miniature Replicas of Angkor, Siem Reap.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh.
Like this? Check out more travel reports from Siem Reap.
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Leighton holding a rifle just does not look right. All war is sad, even those that purport to serve noble purposes.
You’re right Memo, looking back on this photo gives me the shivers.
The open-air museum looks sparse, but it’s in that sparsity that it really shows the emptiness left by the horrific war. Perhaps the people still don’t know how to make light of just how damaging it was, and rather than “celebrating” its existence, they’re at loss of whether to commemorate or erase it. Maybe it’s just me reading too much into the symbolism, but as with any war, it’s a difficult and painful history that shows the extent of humanity’s cruelties.
I think sparsity in these kinds of sites is fine. Indeed I’ve seen elements of that in just about every war and genocide location I’ve ever seen. As you say, it can accentuate the feeling of loss and emptiness. With this place though, I feel somebody should pick up the trash, fix a few of the signs, cut the grass, maintain the unloved memorial to those who died here. To me, that feels like the very least you’d expect.
We have visited Cambodia also and while I found the people warm and friendly they do not seem to care much about their history. I found all of Phnom Penh very dirty. As you say something could be made of that museum. There is at least a generation or more of intellectuals and academics missing so it must cause problems further down the line.
Some interesting observations Alison. The people are warm and friendly for the most part but I don’t think I ever got beyond the surface when it came to the war and genocide years. The driver who joined us that day did a fair amount of giggling but said very little. And I certainly didn’t want to probe. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.
I don’t think I’ll go to Cambodia again I prefer Laos
Perhaps the subtlety of this museum was to show that there is no explanation of war that makes any sense. Each person can see the exhibits and interpret in their own way. Like you, I would have been a bit uncomfortable holding a rifle used against people. I had held rifles before (a 22 when my Dad taught me to shoot and a shotgun at a failed attempt at bird hunting). I am not a gun person and have not held another in the past 50 years. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Have a great day. Allan
I suspect any subtle interpretation may be giving the creators of this museum too much credit. But you’re right, we do experience this stuff in different ways. If put in that situation again I would simply refuse to hold a gun. I think that day I just wanted to appease him. Thanks for your considered thoughts Allan.
Ah I had this on my list, but think perhaps I won’t bother. It’s so sad really as it could be such an interesting, informative and emotional spot paying tribute to the innocent victims of this awful regime and the war that followed.
Well, there’s always the chance they spruced it up a bit in the two and a half years since we visited. Somehow though I doubt it. Thanks for reading!
This is … hmm, shall I say a strange way of remembering war and genocide victims. I would expect something more touching. It actually just looks like a place that was “built” long ago and is now forgotten (well, except for the entrance fee that is) … at least you found the arms store interesting. Thanks anyway for showing it – these stories need to be told (even in such an odd way like this).
It was a huge disappointment. It just felt like nobody cared. We saw some incredibly moving and revealing genocide tributes across Cambodia, but this wasn’t one of them. Thank you for reading Corna.
It reminds me of a military camp near Phnom Penh where tourists are lured in and can shoot real ammunition for money.
Oh lord, I hadn’t heard of that one. I wonder what kind of tourist would travel to Cambodia and be attracted to that! Thanks for reading, and for your comment.
“The emptiness of war” eh? Looks like a half assed attraction to me but not one completely without merit. Well written up all the same
Thanks Stan, I was half considering leaving this one out but saw that literally nobody has blogged about it. So I thought, what the heck.
The saying “war is hell” seems to be on display here. Too bad they didn’t use the area to pay tribute to the innocent victims.
Totally agree, thanks for reading and contributing to the thread!
I do think they could have made more effort with the museum as it doesn’t appear to have presented the war and genocide victims in the best way, I believe that something more touching would have been much more appropriate.
Thanks Marion for reading and for your thoughts. Thankfully there were very few disappointments in terms of the sights during our seven months in Siem Reap.
Places like this really need not only information about what that period was but also the aspect of the redemption and healing from such horrors otherwise it just feels like a cheap shot at sensitivities. Sounds like a disappointing place that if they put a little more into it could be instead an interesting and moving place.
Glad you agree Meg, it just feels… not good enough really. Still, no regrets in going as it was interesting to visit the site of a former military camp. Thanks for reading!
This brings back memories of our time there. Part of this this was it horrific. Thanks Anita
That museum seems like a bit of a let down and a missed opportunity. That’s such a shame to hear that the grounds also weren’t cared for and that there was litter everywhere. I’ll have to put this on my list of places not to visit.
Thanks for reading guys. A tricky place to write up, no wonder nobody had bothered blogging about it ha ha.
The tuk tuk drivers gun commentary would have made me nervous… and I’m quite at ease with a bit of weaponry. You do look a bit non plussed in the picture! Strangely, it’s the bike that stands out to me. A little bit of someone’s normality in amongst all the remainders of war. A very interesting post on a slightly baffling place!
And Full Metal Jacket is brilliant.
Nonplussed is about right. Thanks for reading this odd travel report Helen. I like your observation about the bike. Oh to know who once owned it and what became of them. We are both big Kubrick fans!
Your visit to this museum goes to prove that we have to take a leap of faith sometimes. I can’t say that I would’ve enjoyed those particular bits of history without a story to go with them. I grew up watching the Viet Nam war in living color – usually while the news was on during dinnertime – and most anything having to do with it still distresses me. With that said, I would love to visit Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Laos one day. Getting to visit Cambodia through your travels is a treat for me. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for your thoughtful response Kellye. This was probably the strangest place we visited in Siem Reap. Later, during our stay in Phnom Penh, we saw some of Cambodia’s heavyweight genocide sights. All tastefully done with care and authenticity. And harrowing beyond words. Watching the Vietnam War unfold in real time… I can hardly imagine.